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The regime is overthrown, what now?

HDN | 2/15/2011 12:00:00 AM | CAN ERTUNA

The current dynamics have managed to tear down a regime, but can they succeed in building a new one? That seems possible in Tunisia; but the case is different for Egypt.

A strong outcry of people has led the Arab world within the last one month, shaped by a short sentence: “El Shaab yurid iskat el Nizam!” (The people want the fall of the regime). Habib Bourghiba Avenue in downtown Tunisia resonated for two weeks with this slogan. The result was the overthrown of the 23-year Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime. The very slogan was used almost in the same time interval, but this time in the Egyptian capital, Cairo. The 29-year Hosni Mubarak regime in the country has come to an end by hundreds of thousands people chanting: “El Shaab yurid iskat el Nizam!”

What now? Although both used the very same slogan and method, people of Egypt and Tunisia now face different futures. Tunisia, for now, seems to have a better chance to be “a country governed by democracy” than Egypt.

[HH] Similarities between the structures of two unrests

The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have plenty of similarities. First of all, both societies have lived under oppression for quite some time and experienced suffocating corruption. At this point, let me remind you that both Ben Ali and Mubarak were pat on the back by Western states setting standards of democracy. Both regimes provided unlimited wealth to a very limited group close to the governments as most people suffered poverty and lived in fear of police forces. But the biggest factor in these popular unrests was the social profile of the crowds on Habib Bourghiba Avenue in Tunisia and in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo. The success of the uprisings in both countries can be attributed to neither Islamic organizations nor opponent organizations of the leftist tradition. Masses consisting of mostly 15- to 35-year-olds played a leading role in both upheavals. This social group concerned about the future is affected the most by the income distribution gap, as it is the case in many other countries suffering through the global economic crisis. “Another world is possible!” they said including the young, the middle-aged, and the old. They have not adopted an archaic attitude of predecessors, “That’s life. It’s inevitable.” They are following the world through not only television and newspapers but also through the Internet and satellite channels. Fed up with living under the police forces, Tunisians and Egyptians had common concerns, did not want to be unemployed anymore and ran out of patience to be the citizens of a country that lost its identity and pride as satellites of the West. The fire was started by 26-year-old street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi when his vegetable cart was confiscated by police in Tunisia on Dec. 26. He burned himself and his fire spread throughout the entire Tunisia first and then weeks later to Egypt. Social communication networks were involved quickly as photos of Buazizi shared on Facebook and Twitter happened to be the cause of protests. Demonstrators carried Tunisian flags and chanted the slogan, “The people want the fall of the regime.” No one was excluded from the upheavals because the popular uproar had reached its broadest common ground: Being Tunisian and demanding a regime change. Neither tired and weak opposition parties, nor the strongest labor union, UGTT, nor the Islamic movement al-Nahda, which was suppressed by the Ben Ali regime, came forward to take the lead. All mingled among the crowd. As the army refused to hit the people, Ben Ali had no choice but to escape and his militia had no choice but to hide.

It took time for those who considered the uprising in Egypt as a plot by the Muslim Brotherhood, the only strongest opponent block in the country, to realize that Tahrir was a square for democracy above and beyond political parties, movements or classes. However, the slogan in Tahrir was identical to the one in Tunisia and the spirit of revolt, too. Dirty tricks by Mubarak in order to suppress the rebellion before hundreds of thousands gathered in Tahrir were similar to that of Ben Ali in Tunisia. Limitless authority to his police forces to apply brute force and to use secret services against the people or even against foreign press. The military in Egypt did not want to act against the people. The Egyptian military took control of the Mubarak regime in the last two days of the revolt.

[HH] Differences

In addition to pages of historical and geo-strategic differences between these two countries, there is another big difference perhaps to determine the process from now on: The military! The Tunisian army has always kept the ground for being an observer of the process – at least seemingly. They allowed negotiations between the people and the government. The military in Egypt, however, is the de facto ruler of the country for now. The Egyptian military is traditionally the lead actor in politics. First of all, all presidents had military background, 10 percent of the economy is either directly or indirectly controlled by the military. It is the second biggest receiver of the U.S. aid, after Israel. The military in Egypt is the strongest power preserving status quo for both the national and foreign policies of the country. It also has created government elitists at times. The Egyptian military is also the one that helped Israel take a deep breath when it issued the statement, “We will abide by all international agreements.” The 32-year-old Egypt-Israel peace accord – at least for a while – will remain in force, according to the statement. But it must have disappointed the Hamas administration in Palestine, because they want to have a hole in the embargo against Gaza with the expectation of opening the Rafah border gate.

[HH] Afterward

There was another similarity between the two peoples who took to the street and chanted many times, “The people want the fall of the regime”: Ambiguous answers to the question, “What will happen from now on?” The mainstream view in both countries has been “We are free of the regime at last, so everything will be easy!” The main expectation is, “We want democracy and freedom,” however these concepts are too general. The answer to, “What if the old regime blossoms slowly again?” was also in common with, “We will not leave the street without rooting them out.”

Arab people are taking to the streets one after another. One thing is clear though, in the Middle East nothing will be the same. Fundamental concepts as well as analyses of politics and sociology should be reviewed. Colloquially speaking: Never say never!

The developments have revealed before our eyes how hundreds of thousands without common class, religion and ethnic identities can overthrow regimes that have been considered impossible to topple. However, what kind of a government can be formed should be considered very carefully; especially in the regions where civil society organizations are at their lowest. Current dynamics have managed to tear down a regime, but can build a new one? That seems possible in Tunisia for today, where the streets are at the steering wheel of daily politics. But it is different in Egypt, where the military does not have an anti-imperialist tradition or any problem with the status quo and has taken over control for six months. The streets should watch closely, protect itself and operate in an organized fashion. The crowds are giving the image of unity on the streets for now, but they can just as quickly turn against each other and fight for their spot in different political camps as soon as the fire of the revolt dies.

* Can Ertuna is a correspondent for the private news channel NTV. He has covered extensively the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

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